Movies, like dreams, can take us anywhere. With Fight Club, David Fincher began his movie literally inside the brain of a very confused young man. So I'm anxious when talented directors paint themselves into a corner. Hearing about Panic Room, a script by David Koepp bought by Columbia Pictures for several million dollars, my heart sank. One location, one night, one goal: a divorced mother (Jodie Foster) must protect her daughter (Kristen Stewart) against home invaders (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam). Her greatest weapon? A secret, cement-lined, steel-reinforced "panic room" hidden in the middle of the house.
But Panic Room works like the scare machine it's meant to be, calibrated for frissons of fear and kinetic beauty. Foster took the role when Nicole Kidman was injured after several weeks of shooting, and her anxiety-fraught portrayal of the emotional pain, then physical courage of the put-upon mom may be one of her most meticulous performances. Fincher is soft-spoken, but talking to him about the production of Panic Room reveals him to be equally meticulous about every detail. I mention my fear before seeing the film that he wouldn't be able to pull off this hyper, move-like-the-wind riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window. So many opportunities to be boring.
"Yeah," he concedes. "That was the key of making it. It's a pretty terse script. There's not a lot there. The whole time, it was like, y'know, an hour-and-45-minute movie, that's what it's gotta be. It's got to feel like one night. Is it going to feel like that or is going to feel like three nights?"
There's hardly any back-story for the characters. We're in the present. I wondered how long this woman is in the house before hell breaks loose? Four hours? "Yeah. Not even. That's the thing. That's what makes it a movie. We kept saying [referring a major scene from the film], there's no way you're not going to see f--ing fire on the ceiling in the trailer. So all this playing coy in the first three pages, it's like stupid. It's like, let's get on with it. We know where we're going with it. We know where we're going to wind up."
The movie's beautifully dark -- gray and blue and black and hardly any color at all. "It seemed like if you were going to make a movie that takes place during a breaking-and-entering in the middle of the night, it's gotta be dark," he deadpans.
The dialogue avoids catchphrases, like late 20th-century movie heroes were fond of cracking, as well as overt racial remarks. Whitaker is black, Yoakam can be taken by some as being poor Southern bad guy, Leto is a spoiled Manhattan trustafarian. There are a handful of pop culture jokes, but nobody's slanging about class or race or gender.
"I think we added one line in the looping, you can't really hear it because there's so much music and craziness going on," Fincher says. "But in the fight where you see the fight through the bedroom doorway and you see it in shadows, I had Forest say, 'Get off me, you crazy hillbilly motherf--er!' But again, New York, I don't see racial divisions in New York. Everybody's suffering the same, and everybody's pawing their way. The most agonized and miserable guy in the movie is the one with the trust fund!"
The script has moments that make it a paradigm of Hollywood terseness, where you can say almost nothing yet say everything.
"This is a movie-movie," says Koepp, Panic Room's screenwriter. "It's about what the expectations are about movies as much as our expectations about people. In that sense, it is a true genre picture. It exists to either deliver or subvert your expectations of what's going to happen in that situation. It's a crime thriller, but it's also in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre vein. These people are going in to look for what they perceive as the quick solution to their problems. Money is never the quick solution to anyone's problems. It's just an object that everyone's after for the wrong reasons. It's a cinematic study in how you use or abuse the one setting for maximum effect. "
The story's so stripped-down, it can be read as a metaphor for child custody battles. "This is a movie about divorce," Fincher says calmly. "The destruction of the home, the attempts to... One party's always after the money, the other party is going to allow whatever has to be destroyed to be destroyed, whatever. That's there."
That seems like a pretty simple narrative mechanism after Fight Club. I wondered if he felt it was time for a more direct kind of storytelling. "I don't really think in those terms. I read a script, going, 'Is it a movie I'd want to see? Are there a lot of movies like it already out? Do I think I can do something with it?' That's my criteria. This movie's been a challenge for me because it's all in one night, all in one place. It's like the high school play."